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Politicsby Ian Round9:57 amJan 21, 20200

Tough questions few and fleeting at 7th Congressional District debate

Baltimore event gives Mfume, Rockeymoore Cummings and other candidates a chance to tell their stories and share their views.

Above: Kweisi Mfume speaks at a debate for 7th District candidates. (Ian Round)

Onstage in Baltimore for a debate last night, Kweisi Mfume and Maya Rockeymoore Cummings, two of the frontrunners in the race to replace the late Congressman Elijah Cummings in Maryland’s 7th Congressional District, avoided tough questions about recent damaging news stories about them.

The Baltimore Sun reported last week that Mfume’s tenure as president of the NAACP ended because – among many other reasons – a former employee threatened to sue him and the NAACP for sexual harassment.

The organization also investigated Mfume for giving preferential treatment to an employee with whom he had a relationship.

“How can we trust you not to take advantage of your position?” asked a moderator at the debate, hosted by DMV Daily News at Soul Harvest Baptist Church before about 120 people.

An audience member called out, “That’s too personal.”

Mfume said the workplace relationship was ill-advised (“I shouldn’t have done it”) but consensual.

He did not address the sexual harassment allegations before his time ran out. That was the end of the subject for Mfume, who represented the 7th District before Cummings, leaving his seat to become president of the NAACP.

At a debate in Baltimore, candidates offered their vision for the 7th Congressional district. (Ian Round)

At a debate in Baltimore, candidates offered their vision for the 7th Congressional District. (Ian Round)

Rockeymoore Cummings’ Finances

It was one of the few raw moments in an otherwise unremarkable debate, featuring 10 of the 24 Democratic candidates, but only seven at a time. (Three candidates who are members of the Maryland General Assembly left early for Annapolis, after which they were replaced onstage by three others.)

All of them are running to finish Cummings’ current term. The primary election is February 4 and the special general election is April 28.

Rockeymoore Cummings’ potentially challenging moment came when a Washington Post investigation was cited.

Maya Rockeymoore Cummings speaks with an audience member after the debate. (Ian Round)

Maya Rockeymoore Cummings speaks with an audience member after the debate. (Ian Round)

Moderator Caryn York read an audience question about the report of sloppy record-keeping that appeared to commingle the finances of Rockeymoore Cummings’ charity with those of her for-profit consulting company, as well as reports that she overspent as chair of the Maryland Democratic Party.

But the question went on: why did the late congressman’s daughters endorse Harry Spikes, a longtime staffer, rather than Rockeymoore Cummings, his widow?

“Elijah loved his daughters,” she replied. She said they were “strong-willed, opinionated people.”

She didn’t address her charity and company or her tenure as state party chair. There was no follow-up and the debate moved on.

1994 Crime Bill

DMV Daily News founder Hassan Giordano billed the event as the first and possibly only debate of the campaign; candidates have appeared before at other forums.

Other than Rockeymoore Cummings and Mfume, the candidates in attendance were:

• Saafir Rabb, an activist and entrepreneur.
• State Sen. Jill P. Carter, who represents West and Northwest Baltimore.
• Del. Terri L. Hill, who represents Howard and Baltimore counties.
• Del. Talmadge Branch, who represents East and Northeast Baltimore.
• F. Michael Higginbotham, professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law.
• Harry Spikes, a longtime staffer for Elijah Cummings.
• Mark S. Gosnell, director of intensive care and chief of pulmonary medicine at MedStar Harbor Hospital.
• Leslie E. Grant, former president of the National Dental Association.

The candidates largely agreed on the issues, and they rarely spoke directly to each other.

The only point of conflict came when Carter criticized Mfume for his support of the 1994 crime bill, which many argue caused mass incarceration and had a devastating impact on minority communities.

Del. Terri Hill, a candidate for the vacancy created by the death in October of Rep. Elijah P. Cummings, addresses the debate crowd. (Ian Round)

Del. Terri Hill, a candidate for the vacancy created by the death of Elijah Cummings, addresses the debate crowd. (Ian Round)

The conversation was oriented toward Baltimore City, even though the district includes parts of Howard and Baltimore counties.

Grant, who said she lives in northern Baltimore County, noted that she’d worked in the city for a long time. Hill, who represents the 12th District in the House of Delegates, nearly apologized for being from Columbia.

Carter, Branch and Hill left before the end of the debate in order to arrive in Annapolis before the General Assembly gavelled in at 8 p.m. They were replaced by Spikes, Grant and Gosnell.

Looking for Daylight

The candidates rarely sought to draw contrast with each other. They offered very similar answers  on three “hot-button” issues: Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and President Donald Trump’s escalation of the conflict with Iran.

They were also asked to identify their political ideologies – progressive, moderate, centrist, etc.

“I’m a progressive moderate,” Mfume said. “Some people might want to take me to task for that.” He said he was fiscally conservative, but said the nation spends too much on the military.

Cummings, on the other hand, said she is a “pragmatic progressive.”

Branch said he was both a moderate and a progressive. He said his role as House Majority Whip requires him to have working relationships with people in the center and on the left.

Higginbotham said he wasn’t sure. “I don’t know what you would call me,” he responded. “But I’m a proud Democrat.”

Carter was not shy about identifying herself with the left. She criticized moderate Democrats and Republicans for “playing footsie with the insurance industry.”

“I am an unapologetic progressive Democrat,” Carter said.

Presidential Preferences

The candidates were asked who they support for president, apparently another attempt to understand who falls into which ideological category. The results:

Mfume: no endorsement.

Rabb: Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.

Rockeymoore Cummings: prefers to stay neutral, but supports “big bold structural change,” a phrase often used by Warren.

Gosnell: Sen. Kamala Harris; he was disappointed to see her drop out. He said he would support Joe Biden because of his “electability.”

Hill: Warren, Sen. Amy Klobuchar or Sanders.

Spikes: no endorsement.

Higginbotham: Klobuchar, who is a friend of Higginbotham’s.

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